The International Booker Prize 2018 winner invites her readers on a journey. Place and time: optional. Direction: ahead. Destination: a lesson in identity. Risk: getting lost.
In 2014, John O'Keefe and Mau-Britt and Edvard Mosers were awarded Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology for their discoveries on orientation in space. The neurobiology professor, O'Keefe, discovered the so-called place cells which form maps in the hippocampus, the brain's memory centre. The Mosters, a scientist couple, discovered the so-called grid cells that are connected to them, and which allow to find one's way in the field. The Noble Committee justified its verdict with a statement that the researchers have 'solved a problem that occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries'. And also writers – one should add. The characters of Tokarczuk’s book Flights (published in Poland under the title Bieguni in 2007) unconsciously utilise this internal GPS to its breaking point. Not to reach the target – the road itself is their aim. They act like rowdy drivers who ignore the navigation system's voice (in this case, the voice of reason): 'You’re off track. Turn back if possible'. It is not possible. Occassionally they would just lose the signal and return to the starting point.
There are many maps loaded into the Flights' narrative: old and contemporary, true and legendary, representing continents, islands and cities. By observing them attentively and recreating them in his/her head, the reader notices abstract patterns, undeveloped stains and geometric lines which start to resemble human nervous system. With good reason – Tokarczuk tries to grasp the essence of travel not in its physical but psychological sense. Thus, the geographical maps are accompanied by maps of human bodies, thoughts and emotions. They all transform and grow, becoming in a way interactive, unfinished. They are modelled after a labyrinth – a motif which was already used by the author of The Book of Jacob in her first short story Numbers (hotel Capital was depicted as a labyrinth of fragrances). In Flights, the labyrinth motif has several foundations.
The first – the most obvious – is the mythical, dangerous space of Vis. Tokarczuk replaced the Greek island housing the Minotaur's lair in Knossos with a Croatian island and its olive tree bush, which turns out to be a trap for Kunicki's wife and child (he is the book's most prominent character). Religion delivers another piece of inspiration: Jerusalem, recalled not by its name, but through the attached city plan, and the labyrinth of its streets. A fragment of its description is a warning against the journey's end, against reaching the final destination: 'In the labyrinth there is no treasure and no Minotaur to be fought, the road ends suddenly with a wall (…)'.
We also find literary nods in Flights. For example, the labyrinths forming Borges’ imagination: invisible and infinite, sheltering a certain mystery. Tokarczuk creates her world in a similar manner and does not try to harness the chaos at all. She allows her characters to linger in it, get lost, tread an untravelled road and discover the path to their very being. They feel a strong internal tension which can be discharged only by movement. This is why they carry out with their own journey, just like the members of the Orthodox Christian sect – ever-wandering to escape evil. Annushka leaves her sick son and indifferent husband to live in the Moscow subway – close to home in a way, but far away from responsibilities and habits. The professor, who has reached retirement age a long time ago and knows everything there is to know about Greece, plans an expedition in the footsteps of Odysseus. A woman encountered at the Stockholm airport travels the world to find evidence of animal mistreating. There are many more similar stories, from different places and eras.
In one moment, this incoherent narrative starts to resemble the structure of hypertext networks. Establishing contact or meeting another person (the often repeated phrase: 'The pilgrimage’s aim is another pilgrim') is like clicking a link: a new window opens, another story.
'When I embark on a journey, I disappear from maps. Nobody knows where I am. At the point of departure or at the point to which I travel? Is there something «in between» in between?', wonders the narrator, somewhat resemblant of the author personality-wise. However, this autobiographism is absorbed by the community of experiences. Truth be told, everyone could have become Flights' character. It is an in-between story: in-between the old and contemporary world, science and religion, body and soul. The work is in part a travel diary, a collection of random scribblings and quotes, a philosophical treatise, a short story posing as a criminal mystery and an interior monologue. If one were to categorize it, it would be closest in form to a silva rerum (a home chronicle), although the author calls it a 'constellation novel' which 'is supposed to work as a projective test – we project our own meanings onto it'.
Tokarczuk already took an attempt at fragmentary storytelling in 1998’s House of Day, House of Night – in the case of Flights, this technique is elevated to the next level. The theme of travel appeared in her oeuvre more than once. In her debut novel, The Journey of the Book-People (1993), she states that wandering is the 'deepest experience of the passing of time'. In 1996’s Primeval and Other Times we read: 'What does not move, stays idle. What stays idle, falls apart'. In turn, The Lost Soul, illustrated by Joanna Concejo and awarded with the Bologna Ragazzi Award 2018, is a peculiar reply to life in haste.
In this sense, Tokarczuk's literary output is the prose of continuation and constant search. Not only of the lost soul and thoughts, but also of adequate form and words. The language in Flights stems from the book's content: it is fluid, intellectual, ivy-like – looking to philosophy and ethics for support. This is why there is a polemic with the Aristotelian concept of movement, echo of Jungian depth psychology and traces of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception which aims to describe the sourcing experiencing of the world, while body becomes the tool of comprehension.
This is the case of, for instance, Philip Verheyen, a Flemish surgeon, the discoverer of the Achilles tendon, one of the novel's characters. The reader is a witness to the autopsy of the medic's own cut-off leg. First connotation? Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. The literary work and the painting differ significantly, though: the Dutchman depicts a cut-open hand and illustrates the tradition of the public spectacle known as the anatomical theatre, while Flights – not only in the medical part of the story – are of more intimate character. But there are also similarities: semblances of realism and the use of chiaroscuro. Both Rembrandt and Tokarczuk draw out what is quintessential from the darkness. To lay light is to capture, understand and tame.
One more remark: in The Anatomy Lesson’s… there's a book visible upper-right corner – most probably it is De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) by Andreas Vesalius. Its final, seventh part was dedicated to the mind. Perhaps this is the key to reading Flights: a fascinating journey can be experienced even in one's imagination. Tokarczuk’s prose can grant the reader such a journey multiple times.
The book was translated into English by Jennifer Croft.
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, Apr 2018, translated by Patryk Grabowski, May 2018